Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry Describes the Fighting in the Cornfield at Antietam

The David Miller farm on the Union right flank was the scene of some of the most deadly fighting at the Battle of Antietam on September 17th, 1862. The battle’s first shots were fired on this flank early in the morning when Major General Joseph Hooker’s 1st Corps attacked. Union and Confederate forces attacked and counterattacked across Miller’s  farm, particularly at his cornfield. One of the units participating in the fighting in what became known simply as The Cornfield was the 6th Wisconsin Infantry of the Iron Brigade. 

Rufus Dawes, who served in the 6th Wisconsin from 1861 to 1864, was a 24 year old Major in the regiment at the Battle of Antietam. Dawes wrote about his experiences in the war, including some vivid accounts of the action he saw at Antietam. In this account , we pick up the action as the 6th Wisconsin prepares to advance into The Cornfield.

We climbed the fence, moved across the open space, and pushed on into the cornfield. The three right companies of the regiment were crowded over into an open field on the right hand side of the turnpike. Thus we pushed up the hill to the middle of the cornfield.

At this juncture, the companies of the right wing received a deadly fire from the woods on their right. To save them from destruction, Colonel Bragg, with quickness and coolness equal to the emergency, caused them to change front and form behind the turnpike fence, where they returned the fired of the enemy. Meanwhile, I halted the left wing, and ordered them to lie down on the ground. The bullets now began to clip through the corn, and spin through the soft furrows–thick, almost, as hail. Shells burst around us, the fragments tearing up the ground, and grape shot whistled though the corn above us. Lieutenant Bode, of Company F, was instantly killed by a piece of shell, and Lieutenant John Tickner was badly wounded. A man now came running to me through the corn. He said, “Major, Colonel Bragg wants to see you quick at the turnpike .” I ran to the fence just in time to hear Bragg say:  “Major, I am shot; take command, ” before he fell upon the ground…I felt a great sense of responsibility when thrown thus suddenly in command of the regiment in the face of a terrible battle…

Our lines on the left now came sweeping forward though the corn and the open fields beyond.  I ordered my men up to join the advance, and commanded:  “Forward–guide left–march!”   They swung away from the turnpike as they advanced, and I sent the sergeant major (Howard J. Huntington) with this order to the commanding officer of the companies on the turnpike:  “If it is practicable, move forward the right companies, aligning with the left wing.” Captain Kellogg said to Huntington:  “Please give Major Dawes my compliments, and say it is impracticable, the fire being murderous.”

As we were getting separated, I directed Sergeant Huntington to tell Captain Kellogg that he could get cover in the corn, and to move over an join us, if possible. Huntington was struck by a bullet, but delivered the order. Kellogg ordered his men up, when so many were shot in their tracks that he ordered then down again at once. While this was transpiring on the turnpike, the remainder of the regiment was marching forward through the thick corn, and the right of a long line of battle. Closely following was a second line of battle. At the front edge of the cornfield was a low Virginia rail fence. Before the corn were open fields, beyond which was a strip of wood surrounding a little church. As our line appeared at the edge of the corn, a long line of men in butternut and gray rose up from the ground. Simultaneously, the hostile battle lines opened a tremendous fire upon each other. Men, I can not say fell; they were knocked out of the ranks by dozens. But we jumped over the fence, and pushed on, loading, firing, and shouting as we advanced….

The Fourteenth Brooklyn Regiment, red legged Zouaves, came into my line on a run, closing the awful gaps. Now is the pinch. Men and officers of New York and Wisconsin are fused into a common mass in the frantic struggle to shoot fast…Men are falling in their  places or running back into the corn.The soldier who is shooting is furious in his energy and eagerness. The soldier who is shot looks around for help with an imploring agony of death on his face. After a few rods of advance, the line suddenly stopped and as if by common impulse, ran back to the edge of the corn and lay down on the ground behind the low rail fence. Another line of our men came pushing up through the corn. We all joined together, jumped over the fence, and pushed out again into the open field…The men are loading and firing with demoniacal fury…the whole field in front of us is covered with rebels fleeing for life into the woods. Great numbers of them are shot while climbing over the high post and rail fences along the turnpike,  We push on over the open fields half way to the little church. The powder is very bad, and the guns have become very dirty. It takes hard pounding to get the bullets down, and our firing is becoming slow. A long, steady line of rebel gray, nothing shaken by the fugitives who fly before us, comes sweeping down through the woods around the church. They fire. It is like a scythe running through our line. “Now , save, who can.”  It is a race for life that each man runs for the cornfield. A sharp hot cut, as of a switch, stings my calf of my leg as I run. Back to the corn, back through the corn, the headlong flight continues.

–Rufus Dawes, “On the Right at Antietam”. From Sketches of War History, Volume 3, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Ohio Commandery.

After clearing the cornfield, Dawes rallied the 6th. Brigadier General John Gibbon, commander of the Iron Brigade, ordered Dawes to take his men across the turnpike to support two guns of Battery B of the Fourth U.S. Artillery that were threatened with capture.  The artillery fired canister at the advancing Confederates, and the 6th was joined by the 7th Wisconsin Infantry.  The artillery was saved.

Dawes had assumed command after Colonel Edward Bragg was wounded. Bragg recovered from his wounds and later returned to field command. Out of 314 officers and men engaged, the 6th Wisconsin lost 40 men killed and 112 wounded at the Battle of Antietam.

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